Archive for July, 2013
So, Bradley Manning has been convicted of just about everything except “aiding the enemy,” as CNN put it, and I’ve been thinking about treason.
“Giving aid and comfort to the enemy in the time of war” is the way the US law has always defined treason, even though the actual reading of the article in the Constitution doesn’t add the “in time of war.”
Still, levying war against the United States is supposed to be the standard, and the standard has always been very narrowly construed.
I remember being taught, in grade school, that the reason for this was that the British government used very expansive definitions of treason in order to imprison people it didn’t like. Our definition of treason was therefore very narrow, and very difficult to prove.
I don’t remember giving the issue any more thought than that. I somehow managed to miss the whole Jane-Fonda-in-the-Vietcong-Tank thing, but when I did hear about it, I remember thinking that “a very narrow definition” might be understating the case.
Maybe it was because the war was formerly undeclared. Or maybe it was because the war was so unpopular. Fonda was not only not tried, she wasn’t even arrested.
As far as the Manning case goes, it did occur to me that if we weren’t going to charge Fonda with treason, we probably shouldn’t be charging Manning with it–but then, things have changed, as everybody says all the time.
The people who wrote the Constitution thought of treason as a fairly clear cut act, and giving “aid and comfort” as something like passing secrets directly to the opposing army’s generals.
There was no Internet is 1789. There were no phones, either. The extent to which revealing state secrets in a public forum could immediately and significantly affect the course of a war was minimal.
Then I thought of something else–
If “treason” meant anything to the founders, certainly joining the enemy’s army in time of war would count.
And yet although our war in Afghanistan was a declared war, and John Walker Lindh was definitely fighting with the enemy army.
But we didn’t charge Lindh with treason, and eventually let him plead down to charges that carried only 20 years of jail time.
And we did that even though the war, at the time, was not unpopular.
Looking back over the last 50 years, it’s almost as if we’ve lost our belief in treason the way some people lose their belief in God.
It’s just not there any more. We’re not sure if it ever was there.
I had a fair amount of amusement reading various foreign press organs–and especially the BBC–while they wandered around cluelessly unable to understand that the big news wasn’t that Manning had been convicted of all those lesser charges, but that he hadn’t been convicted of the big one.
It took the BBC a full 24 hour news cycle to finally get the oint, which has to be some kind of record, even for them.
But I’ve been wondering what’s been going on here.
It could be that we’ve lost any sense of ourselves as a nation state, and therefore as a people with a specific, focussed, and necessarily exclusionary identity.
It could be that we’ve used the charge so seldom, and not at all since WWII, that it just sounds strange to us now–like hog fat poulstices and dunking stools, it reeks of the past.
John Walker Lindh’s father wrote an extraordinary article for the British newspaper The Guardian. You can find it here
It’s an extraordinary document, even allowing for the strain the man had to be under given what amounted to the loss of his son.
It’s not just that there’s no sense that people anywhere, ever, might owe allegiance to anything on the basis of anything but our own personal beliefs.
It is also thoroughly and radically relativized in a way that would have been inconceivable before 1960, and even for many years after, at least in the United States.
The Taliban were our allies.
He didn’t mean to fight other Americans.
It was misplaced idealism.
It was his duty under his religion.
Lots of other Americans joined armies in Muslim countries, too.
In Frank Lindh’s world, it doesn’t matter what you do, only the intentions you had when doing it–and maybe not even those.
Reading through this thing, I don’t find it odd that John Walker Lindh ended up as an American Taliban. I think that Frank Lindh ought to count himself lucky that that’s all his son ended up as.
But the moral vacuity of Frank Lindh’s life doesn’t explain what the behavior of the rest of us.
Frank Lindh was wrong to believe that “throughout the West” his sons actions were recognized as “misplaced idealism,” but the fact is that we weren’t recognizing them as much of anything else, either.
The charges were wishy-washy even before the plea deal, and for all the orchestrated outrage of Fox News and its affiliates, the country seemed to be less concerned w ith condemning the acts than they were with why such a nice kid from an upper middle class family would have gotten himself into this mess.
Even writers at the Hoover Institution, usually reliably conservative or libertarian in all things, objected to prosecuting Lindh for pretty much anything.
So here we sit, with Bradley Manning almost certainly going to jail, although not, of course, for treason. We’ll nail down Edward Snowden one of these days–when the Russians have stopped playing w ith him–and he’ll go to jail, too, but also not for treason.
Jane Fonda still wanders around confused as to why anybody would be mad at her for that day in North Vietnam. A few protestors still show up whenever she films on location, carrying the usual signs saying “I’m not Fonda Hanoi Jane.”
It’s only a few, though.
I think we’ve come to a place where we think that treason is mythical–like unicorns and Hogwarts.
And if it’s not mythical, it’s not exactly a real crime, like rape, or murder, or smoking in your classroom.
So, what I’ve been reading in my off time the last week or so is a book called
47) Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jeffrey M. Lohr, eds. Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.
I did mean to do a long blog post on this book in general. It’s actually a collection of essays, but various authors and groups of authors, on topics like what is and what isn’t a verified method of diagnosis in cases of child abuse, or what is and what isn’t a scientifically verified effective treatment for one (supposed) disorder or the other.
I started reading this book with high hopes, because the forward outlined the vast gulf between clinical practices and assumptions and the actual science, and then listed a slew of “things everybody knows” that turn out not to be true.
a) almost all abused children become abusive parents
b) children who masturbate or “play doctor” hae probably been sexually molested
c) projective tests like the Rorschach validly diagnose personality disorders, most forms of psychopathology, and sexual abuse.
If you’re somebody like me, who is mostly concerned with the ways in which pseudoscientific claptrap is used, and called “science,” in places like schools and courtrooms, this sort of list is not entirely heartening.
On the one hand, it’s nice to know that at least some people who call themselves psychologists and psychiatrists know that this stuff is nonsense.
On the other hand, it’s the clinical practictioners and their quasi-professional local surrogates (teachers, school nurses, social workers) who go into courtrooms and determining who gets to keep their children.
There’s a story in that forward about a social worker who decided to remove a child from her mother, even though there were no signs of abuse or neglect, because the mother had been abused as a child and “everybody knows” that abused children grow up to be abusers.
I have my doubts that the mother in that case would have found it comforting that the “real scientists” in psychology know better. It isn’t the real scientists either she, or we, have to deal with.
But my interest in writing about all that stuff got sidetracked sometime yesterday when I came across a paragraph in the most astoundingly idiotic “chapter” (the book calls the individual essays “chapters”) in the book.
Because the chapters are written by individual people or groups of people, the quality of the work presented varies wildly from one chapter to the next.
Even so, most of the chapters are good faith attempts to present actual science, complete with real peer-reviewed studies, presentations of protocols and references to replicated research, and lots of math.
Some of this is interesting and well written. Some of it is leaden and boring. I’d recommend Chapter 7, “New Age Therapies,” by Margaret Thaler Singer and Abraham Nievod, to anybody and everybody, for the thing about the duck alone.
And I congratulated the writers for being able to maintain the prose equivalent of straight faces while writing about–well, the duck. And alien abduction therapy. And…
Then we get to Chapter 15, “Commercializing Mental Health Issues: Entertainment, Advertising, and Psychological Advice,” by Nona Wilson–and here, I was stopped dead in my tracks.
There is a list of all the contributors to the volume at the front, along with their institutional affiliations, but not their educational background.
Nona Wilson is listed as a Ph.D at the Department of Counseling Education at the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh.
It should not escape your attention that she seems to hale from that part of the profession everybody else in the book is complaining about.
It shouldn’t escape your attention–and it’s probably got something to do with what she says and how she thinks–but the knowledge isn’t going to do you as much good as it might.
That’s because this isn’t a scientific essay. It contains nothing of the peer reviewed studies, carefully devised protocols, and strict reliance on valid methodologies of the rest of the book.
It is, instead, a Cultural Studies essay in all the unbounded glory of idiocy such a designation implies.
It only takes about half a page or so before you realize how screamingly awful t his is going to be.
Wilson writes about popular culture, advertising and entertainment as if she’s a space alien from a planet that contains none of these things.
She is shocked–absolutely shocked–to discover that people choose things like novels and television shows because they find them entertaining.
And since this is incomprehensible to her, she is convinced that people only do that because they are being brainwashed into undiscriminatory zombies by advertising, which is capable of completely rewriting our worldviews until t hey’re unrecognizable as anything that has anything to do with us.
I’d like point out, here, what I’ve pointed out before: only about 50% of advertising has any effect at all, and over 90% of new products fail within a year.
If this woman thinks she knows how to determine what’s succeeding and what’s failing and why, there are a lot of very well heeled advertising agencies who’d be willing to pay a LOT of money to get in on the secret.
But, never fear, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t even know that the reason advertising has gone in for soft sell and irony isn’t because it’s insidiously manipulating our brains, but because it’s desperately looking for a way to stop people from going to the kitchen for a beer instead of watching the commercials.
The chapter is full of absolutely every dimwitted cliche you’ve ever heard about entertainment and “commercialism” from Marxist academics and self-styled Cultural Critics, and just as clueless about what is actually going on.
At one point, she delivers a definition of “art” that–well:
>>>Some of the criticisms of early popular entertainments emphasized their failure to achieve the status of “art”–whose goal, unlike entertainment, is to transport the observer/participant from the physical realities of the moment toward a reputedly more worthy, eternal world of the mind and spirit (Gabler, 1998)<<<
One assumes that she got the definition from Gabler, and that’s the reason from the reference. It turns out to be a popular book called Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, put out by a commerical press (Vintage Books) and aimed solidly at a…let’s just call it a nonprofessional audience.
Wilson is so uncomfortable with this entire idea–art? really? there’s something called art? there’s some way of life that’s better than some other way?–that it’s almost painful to watch her twist in the wind.
And then there’s the definition itself, which would have startled the hell out of literally dozens of people usually recognized as great artists, including Franz Kafka and Hieronymus Bosch.
I have decided to be reasonably charitable here and decide that the woman is just tone deaf to all art forms, whether in elite or popular varieties.
She also doesn’t seem to have much i the way of experience with them.
At that point, we get to her real issue, which is the appalling commercialization and entertainmentization of psychology represented by self helf books, tapes, seminars, and TV shows.
Now, let’s face it. Some of this is just professional jealousy. There are all those psychologists out there who don’t give a damn about professional standards, and they’re making a mint. There are people out there who aren’t even real psychologists who are setting themselves up as counselors, and they’re making a mint too!
It’s very, very important that we see all this as incredibly sinister, because patients will look at all these implausible claims of quick fixes and not know enough to forgo them in favor of the real hard work of therapy.
In other words, Wilson’s complaint comes down to the usual: when patients have it in their power to choose, they don’t choose me!
In the process of making this case in as many words as possible, Wilson spends a lot of time talking about (and bemoaning) good old Dr. Phil, who just happens to be the one member of this group I’ve actually seen anything of.
And although I have no use for self help and pop psych and all the rest of it, I could tell you without hesitation why, if I were looking for a therapist, I’d go for Dr. Phil and not for the people Wilson wants to me see.
Would I be looking for easy answers?
Promises of total transformation?
What I’d be looking for is somebody who treated me like a human being, instead of a “patient” or a “client” who is to be assumed as somebody who doesn’t really know what she wants or what’s good for her and who should be carefully manipulated until I know better.
If there is one t hing that has universally infuriated me about every single “mental health professional” I have so far met face to face, it is that weird empathy-speak, that way of talking that smiles and says “yes, I can see that you’re angry” and on and on and on–so that there is never a chance of getting a straight answer to a straight question.
I have the feeling that if I asked Dr. Phil “am I being an idiot here?” I’d get a straightforward yes or no, and that would be the ACTUAL answer, not just a way of managing my mood that would turn out to mean something else altogether next week, or when the “therapist” was talking to a colleague instead of to me.
It continues to amaze me that schools of psychology and psychology training programs for people like nurses and teachers have yet to figure out just how angry–and JUSTIFIABLY angry–this sort of thing makes people.
When my sons came up against this sort of thing on and off over the years, they analyzed exactly: you can’t trust these people, they’re two faced and manipulative, you can’t know if anything they say is true.
Dr. Phil might give me, and them, canned cliches and superficial advice.
But he’d also speak his mind.
This is going to be something of a befuddled post, so I figure I’d better warn you from off.
Some of you already know that one of the movies I’m fascinated with is a thing called Shattered Glass. This is a movie about the Stephen Glass incident at The New Republic where a young writer, the Glass of the title, fabricated a minimum of 27 different articles at in whole or in part, and was later discovered to have done the same at half a dozen other magazines, including George, Policy Review and Harper’s.
I’m fascinated by this movie first and foremost because it is so ferociously well made. You can watch it 40 times and still find things you hadn’t noticed before.
What’s more, the more you watch it, the more you realize that the filmmakers are giving absolutely no slack to Glass, to the magazines, or to the people who worked there. The first time you watch it, you get the feeling that Glass had them all fooled. The third time you watch it, it’s glaringly clear that virtually everybody suspected what was going on, and nobody did anything about it because–well, because.
It would be convenient to be able to put it all down to politics, but at least half the fabricated pieces were not political in any way (the killer piece was on computer hackers), and some of them were hit jobs on Democrats and liberals.
But what has me thinking about the Glass movie this morning is something else: the way in which Glass is portrayed as emotionally and ethically infantile in almost every way.
Let me repeat: this is the opposite of a movie that’s making excuses for The New Republic. As far as this movie is concerned, the magazine, its editors and its owner were entirely culpable. They suspected, they let it ride, and they would have gone on letting it ride if they hadn’t been found out by the online edition of Forbes.
But let me go back to the way Glass is portrayed, because infantile is certainly the word.
Note that “infantile” is not the same as “full of childlike innocense.” Glass in this movie may be infantile, but he’s also a predatory con man who will do anything, say anything, and be anything to get where he wants to go.
But an infantileness, and especially the kind of infantileness it is, is an important point, and getting more important all the time.
It’s the infantileness of “haters.”
Let me be clear–I’m not talking about people who hate.
I’m talking about people who call other people–opponents of same sex marriage, maybe–“haters,” as if the word actually described something in the real world.
I’m not denying that there are some people who hate other people or things or ideas or whatever.
Such people do, of course, exist.
But I don’t think they exist in the sense in which people use the word “haters.”
The word itself is a kindergarten word, the word of someone with a highly restricted vocabulary and an even more highly restricted understanding of life.
In the world of actual human beings, it is almost never the case that somebody just “hates” without a lot of other very complicated set of other things going on.
What’s more, it’s more than almost never the case that somebody who takes up policy ideas you do not like is doing it out of “hate” and nothing else.
This is not the way people work, and being in a position where you are unable to imagine anybody disagreeing with you out of any other motive than “hate”
This is a seven year old’s version of what people are and how they work. It would make sense coming from a spoiled second grader reduced to tears by opposition to anything she does. It makes no sense coming from a 40 year old accountant with a house, a job, and a subcription to Mother Jones.
Some of this is just an attempt to limit the discussion–if Joe Smith is a “hater,” there’s no reason why you have to listen to him, so he can just be ignored.
But there are a lot of ways to accomplish that goal without resorting to elementary school playground affect.
It’s as if people have lost the words they need to analyze and explain human experience, and in having lost the words they’ve lost the knowledge.
An awful lot of people who are supposed to be grown ups live in a miasma of half-ideas that they can’t explain when you ask them and that do nothing at all to help them live, or even to help them solve the problems and address the injustices they say they think need to e solved.
If you ask such a person why somebody is a “hater,” they’ll give you the policy (he’s against gay marriage! he thinks abortion should be illegal!), and if you push it farther than that you get, “they’re afraid of difference and change!”
I don’t know who started the rumor that that last thing is an explanation, but it makes no more sense–and is no more adult–than calling people “haters.”
On one level, it’s completely tautological. We’re all afraid of change and difference. So are cats, dogs and dolphins. Welcome to the mammalian brain.
Even if it were possible to reduce the motives of people to choosing policy positions to such “fear,” it wouldn’t explain why people choose different policy positions, never mind why some people choose one position at one point in their lives and switch to others later.
Then, on top of everything else, such an approach manages to reduce all of history–event history and intellectual history–to mindless paroxysms of emotional disturbance.
The Divinia Comedia is not a great work of art with a lot to say about the relationship of God to man; Locke’s Second Treatise on Government isn’t a landmark in the history of political thought; the Orestaea, Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Bach partitas, Napoleon at Waterloo, Neil Armstrong on the moon–
Well, there’s nothing to be said, really. They were all just haters, all these people. Their whole lives and minds and existences were driven by fear of change and difference.
Of course, I know it sounds silly when I put it this way, but I also think there is more to Michelle Bachman’s ideas about gay marriage than that she “hates gays.”
Hell, I think there’s more to the ideas of some redneck just getting washed in the river with the blood of the lamb than that he “hates gays” or “hates women” or even “hates black people.”
On the same disc as the Stephen Glass movie is an interview 60 Minutes did with Stephen Glass and some of the people involved in that whole mess, and one of the things that stood out was the fact that there was exactly one guy who condemned Glass outright without going into all that psychological jargon–he’s got a problem, he needs help, whatever–
And that guy was in the generation just before mine.
During the Virginia Tech shootings, there was one guy who got up and tried to do something about what was going on.
He was a holocaust survivor, from the generation before mine.
It’s as if, somewhere along the line, people stopped remembering how to behave like grown ups.
Either, that, or they never learned.
I’ve been thinking about the comments from yesterday, and I think I need to find a better way to get some of my ideas across.
I’m not looking for admiration from readers–I like it if I get it, and it’s always fun, but that’s not the requirement.
What I require is that a reader understand what a writer is, and what a writer is not.
Have it your way is a great slogan for Burger King. It’s a terrible slogan for a writer. Writers write what they write because it’s what they write–it’s what happens to them when they start putting things down on paper.
In the textbook we use for English 102, there’s a little section in one of the introductory chapters about “formula fiction” and how the writers’ only purpose for writing it is to make money, and blah and blah and blah.
The person who wrote this has absolutely no idea whatsoever how writers in the genres actually write, or even what kind of money the make.
He seems to think all the genres operate like category romance, with tip sheets and editors demanding that the first sex scene occur on manuscript page 25 and the hero never be so mebody with red hair.
He also has a completely risible idea of how much money everybody is making, and seems to believe that, by using these tip sheets and formulas, publishers can predict in advance just how well or badly any particular book will do.
I think there are special minions in publishing houses trying to call up demons from the deep who will let them do that–but well, you know.
In the meantime, if starving in a garret was the standard for what makes a great writer, Lovecraft would probably outdo anybody else who has ever written fiction in the United States.
Still, what that chapter is talking about is exactly what I’m complaining about in readers who seem to think writers are some kind of service providers.
It’s also one thing for clueless textbook writers to view genre writers like that, and another for fans of the genre to do it.
No genre will last for long if its readers universally–or even substantially–come to insist that the writers within it be mindless and soulless and produce only what is demanded.
No fan of any genre has to admire any particular writer, or to buy what she doesn’t care to read.
But whether you admire a writer’s work, or hate it, whether you buy it or not. it’s important to understand that it wasn’t written to make you or anybody else happy, it was written because it was what the writer had to write.
And now I am just saying the same thing over and over again, so I think I ought to quit.
Let’s put it this way: a day always starts off a good one when it takes me this long to get around to the blog.
The blog is always what I do last, after I do the work somebody is going to pay me for, and when that work gets difficult and conflicted, I tend to give up on it before I get incredibly conflicted about the work and then can’t do anything with it for several days.
But today things went well, and that included the fact that I dumped nearly 1200 words I’d been unhappy about since yesterday, when things did not go well.
I am, it seems, something of a weak sister about my production for the day. Most of the younger writers I meet seem to be doing at least 1800 words, and many of them seem to be doing 3000. They post their totals on FB and bemoan the days when they do only 1200, which is what I do when I’m really rolling along.
This is not, as far as I can tell, a problem that’s arrived with age. I was writing at about the same pace in 1984, when I first started writing Gregor.
On the other hand, this is also not an absolute. One of the best books I ever wrote–Precious Blood, the second in the Gregor series–I wrote in 30 days flat, in a sort of white heat that would not quit.
That was even more remarkable than it sounds at the moment, because Matt was only a year old, and the word for Matt as a baby was: Awake.
White heat marathons, though, are unusual in my writing life. With fiction, I seem to be the poster child for Slow and Steady Wins The Race.
But things have changed in all this, as I’ve gotten older.
One of those things is, oddly enough, that I have a lot less self confidence about my writing, and I’ve reached about zero self confidence about my ability to understand why books sell.
Things have changed so much in the last fifteen or twenty years that I no longer recognize the field.
What’s worse, I have no idea how long it’s been going on.
When I started out, I used to feel that mystery writers and mystery readers had a compact of sorts. Mystery readers wanted certain kinds of things in their books.
For fair play traditionals, that meant a good puzzle plus writing that wasn’t jarringly ungrammatical or amateurish plus good characters who were both plausible and inherently interesting.
Do all those things and you wouldn’t necessarily be a best seller, but you’d do well enough and solidly year after year, and you’d even get a little respect.
Well, I do well enough and solidly, I suppose, and my reviews sometimes sound like hagiographies. and I seem to have a small but solid core of readers who want everything I do.
But somehow, the whole thing seems wrong lately.
Part of it is the emergence, in mystery fandom, of what I’ve always thought of as the “romance reader paradigm.”
Back in the early 1980s, I did some work on a romance line, and in the process went to a few romance conventions, and what always struck me at the time was just how completely awful romance readers were to the authors they said they enjoyed.
The attitude seemed to be: we made you, we can unmake you, you’d damned well better give us what we want.
It was as if the writers were the worst kinds of hacks, whose only function was to serve up the particulars on demand.
I remember thinking how much better off I was in mysteries, where the fans tended to treat writers like…writers.
There are now plenty of mystery fans who treat mystery writers the way those romance fans at the conventions treated romance writers.
Most of them don’t read Gregor, so I don’t actually come across them very often, but every once and a while one of them will pick up a book, and then the mail will start:
Politics has no business in fiction. Novels shouldn’t mention politics at all.
What was all that stupid stuff about the guy cutting off his own leg to save his dog? You don’t need stupid stuff like that. Books are supposed to be fun!
I won’t even begin to go into the number of e mails I get demanding to know who I think I am using all those big words.
I’m not saying all mystery fans are like that. I get good mail as well as bad, and some of it even teaches me something.
But there seems to be more and more of this other stuff every year, and there is no doubt that the cozy-as-fluffy-train-wreck sort of story is selling like crazy.
Seriously, if you want to make money writing traditional mysteries these days, do what I suggested before: tie your corpse upside down to the town church steeple with a dead pelican in his mouth, and don’t worry for a moment that you don’t have an explanation for it that makes any sense. Nobody will care.
Or, rather, lots of people will care–because they’ll love it.
One of the complaints I get now and then is that I don’t really know how to write a modern mystery book–nothing much happens in my stories.
Of course, by the end of any one of my novels you’ve go a minimum of two people dead and at least two others whose private lives have crashed and burned or sometimes even taken.
But you know, what the hell.
Unfortunately, the other end of the field doesn’t make me happy either.
Not high on the genre today.
Wondering if those corpses on steeples mean that romance fans followed romance writers when they changed fields–or if the genre is just plain dead.
So here we are again, at my local news, because over the week-end we had something of a story.
Around about Sunday, a couple of hikers came across a vehicle obviously abandoned on the side of a popular hiking trail.
What’s more, the vehicle stank to high heaven, and the stink was–well, the hikers thought it was distinctive.
Not being idiots, and having a sinking feeling that the stench was, um, not something they wanted to get involved with, the hikers called the cops.
The cops came, and what was in the vehicle turned out to be a corpse, wrapped in garbage bags and stuffed inside a duffel bag.
The basic story is here
and if you look at it, you’ll note the news about the case that arrived yesterday:
The police have arrested three people “in connection” to it.
If you’re a mystery writer, you’re probably sitting there going: so what?
Bodies left in abandoned cars, bodies stuffed into suitcases, bodies left dangling from English pub signs– a body in a duffel bag isn’t even all that inventive.
True story or not, it’s hard to know why we should be interested.
Well, what I’m interested in is not as clear in the link I posted as it has been in some of the stories that have come out since. Those stories had pictures, and matching the pictures with the names, what you find is this.
The three people arrested in connection with this murder are a black man, a Latino man, and a white woman.
It’s like some sappy UNICEF poster gone horribly wrong.
And that makes me think of something else, which is that my life is much more thoroughly segregated now than it was in 1968, or even well before the Civil Rights Movement got into serious gear.
When I was in grade school, my little town–and it was VERY little–had at least two black families whose children attended our schools. I was best friends with one of them in second grade. One of the others introduced me to the music of James Brown a few years later.
This may sound like a little black drop in the bucket, but the ratios were not bad for a town whose high school graduating class reached an all time (until then) high of 80 whole people in 1964.
The percentages in our high school weren’t as good, but the president of my senior class was a black woman, she certainly wasn’t the only black woman there.
(There were no men. It was a girls’ school.)
These days, my guess is that the only reason I see black people at all is that I teach.
If there are black people living anywhere in the town where I am now, I have never seen them. You can go down to Main Street any day you want, shop in the grocery store, buy stamps at the post office, wander in and out of the little shops, and never see a single African American face.
This is not the same thing as saying that the town is monochromatically white. It’s not. We have significant numbers of people of Asian descent, mostly Chinese, but some Thai and Vietnamese and Korean. We have a growing number of people from India and Pakistan.
We just don’t have any African Americans. And the very few Latinos we have are what the press claimed George Zimmerman was, but he wasn’t–they are “white Hispanics.” Meaning that if you saw them on the street, or even talked to them, you wouldn’t know they were Latino at all unless they gave you their last names.
This situation is even odder than it seems, because we live very close to a small city that is heavily black and Latino–heavily enough so that two of the high schools there are almost exclusively black and Latino.
There has been so little spillover, there might as well have been nothing at all.
In fact, I’d be willing to bet that, outside the major cities, most white Americans have no direct contact with black Americans at all, or at least none beyond the level of getting their fast food from a black counter server.
In this town, you wouldn’t get even that much contact. The crews at the local McDonald’s and Burger King are solidly working class w hite, with an occasional “white Hispanic” thrown in.
By now I’m sure a number of you are nodding your heads vigorously and gearing up to tell me that, yes, America is a virulently racist country and that you’ve been trying to tell me that for a long time.
But I don’t think that’s the answer here, or at least I don’t think that that’s the answer here as that answer is usually meant.
I know a fair number of the real estate people in this town, and I know that if you ask them, they’ll tell you that in all the time they’ve been working, they’ve had very few or even no African American clients show up at the door.
It’s not that anybody has refused to sell to African Americans. It’s that nobody has had any African Americans to sell to.
In other words, the self segregation is at least as strong among African Americans in this area as it is among whites, and it may be stronger.
And the result is that a lot of white American now live in a country where black people just don’t exist at all.
Or, worse, exist only on news broadcasts and then almost always only if they’ve been arrested for doing something wrong.
And that’s an interesting issue in and of itself, because the only black people on my television set when I was growing up were Civil Rights leaders and marchers.
If black people were committing crimes in those days, I didn’t know about it, because the local news usually didn’t report on it.
What “those people” did was considered to be not very i nteresting to the rest of us, and therefore not really necessary to report.
Changing that situation, getting the local news across the country to report on African American “concerns,” was one of the big goals of the Civil Rights movement, and I sometimes wonder if the law of unintended consequences didn’t go completely haywire in that case.
In the 1950s, there were formal barriers to integration, and sometimes informal ones, and a near media blackout on the doings of one particular race, but we lived together and we saw each other face to face, and we judged each other on the basis of what we knew of each other face to face.
Now the formal barriers are gone, and most of the informal barriers are gone, and the nighly news sometimes seems to consist of nothing but reports on what black people do, all of them bad.
And we don’t know each other face to face, so we make up our minds on the only things we know–
Except in one place.
In the worst of the small-time petty crime pits of our dying industrial citites, integretation seems to have arrived at the place we all said we wanted it to be in 1964.
For something like the last five days, while most of the rest of the world has been worrying about royal babies and George Zimmerman playing Good Samaritan and I don’t know what else, I’ve been following a story about a Norwegian woman who was arrested in Dubai for having “illegal sex” after she called the police and reported she’d been raped.
In fact, she was more than arrested. She was actually convicted, of that and of drinking alcohol and of making a false report to the police, and sentenced to 16 months in jail.
You can find the story here:
And, as you can tell, it had a happy enough ending–the woman was “pardoned” and sent home to Norway, which is probably where she wanted to be.
If you had been watching this story the way I have, however, you’d know two things.
First, getting convicted of having “sex outside marriage” and jailed for it after reporting a rape happens to a fair number of Western women working in or visiting the United Arab Emirates, and
Second, happy endings are not the usual result of the mess they find themselves in. In fact, in the last two years, at least six women have been charged and convicted of having illegal sex when they tried to report rapes, and all of them did jail time.
At least one of them went to jail for eleven months. If the Norwegian woman hadn’t been pardoned–and the only reason she was was because of the international outcry–she would have gone to jail for 16 months.
Now, there is a part of me, watching this over the days, that gets a little impatient.
It’s an Arab country. It operates on Islamic law. Islamic civilizations are not famous for being good to women. Whatever made THIS woman think her rape charge would be taken seriously? Or treated as anything but a lie told by a whore?
There are things about this case in particular, too, that make me impatient–she’s in a misogynist country and she gets so drunk she can’t perceive that she’s being taken to the wrong apartment?
No, of course, that doesn’t mean she was “asking for it,” and he still had no right to use her body against her will–but, hell, any sane person would have been expecting it.
But in the end, what really got my attention was this: the fact that UAE authorities assume all rape reports are false and that the woman is just making excuses and ought to be jailed for behaving like a whore ISN’T NEWS.
The six or so other women who ran into this same problem, all from EU countries, should have been known to authorities in those countries, and to Brussels.
In other words, the fact that a woman who is raped in the UAE should NOT call the police was already known to both the foreign services and the companies who employ Western women to work there.
This is what orientation is for. It’s also what state departments are for–or part of what they’re for.
When I go overseas–or at least, when I used to–I can go to the State Department web site and get little “advisory” things that give me just this kind of information.
Do EU countries not provide their citizens with this kind of information? Do they provide it, but the citizens don’t go looking for it?
And shouldn’t the companies that hire Western women to work in Islamic states inform them of this kind of thing?
And hasn’t this happened often enough in the last two years–I’m talking 2011 to 2013–that there should be a GENERAL advisory given to any woman who indicates she’s going to the UAE?
This whole thing feels to me as if–I don’t know.
It’s as if all the EU countries whose female citizens had been subjected to t his nonsense decided to treat it as if it weren’t there.
The only reason this latest case result in the woman’s being able to receive a “pardon” and go home was that there was a media outcry. If the case had gone unreported in the international press as the others had, this woman would be sitting in jail right now.
Not all the books I’ve been unearthing in my office have been light and shiny ones like the one on Piero della Francesca I talked about yesterday. I read a lot of books about policy, and some of those have come to the surface, too.
One of those is a thing called The Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism, by Robert T. Pennock. Pennock is (was?) an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey. That name always shakes me up a little, because at the beginning of the country, “The College of New Jersey” was the official name of the place we now call Princeton. This College of New Jersey seems to have nothing to do with Princeton, although from what I can see from their web site, they do like to go on about how very selective they are.
At any rate, Pennock was teaching philosophy there when he wrote this book, which is an analysis of the arguments put forward by people like Philip Johnson and Michael Behe and the then newly emergent Intelligent Design movement.
I say then newly emergent, because this book is not in any way new. It was published in 1999. At that point, there had recently been a couple of high-profile court cases on evolution in public education. Some of them had concentrated on positive efforts to get Creation Science or Intelligent Design taught in publc schools. Others had concerned themselves with negative efforts to undermine the confidence of students in evolution as a fact as well as evolution as a theory.
The latter are those things like getting stickers put in biology textbooks to say evolution is “only a theory” or demands by school districts that the textbooks they buy not discuss evolution in any way.
(In that last case, what textbook publishers do is to take out the word “evolution” and replace it with something like “change over time,” and then just explain evolution as usual. They have to. Modern biology is based on evolution. Without it, there’s nothing you can say about biology at all.)
Very often, when I come across books I haven’t seen for a while but that I remember with admiration, I reread them.
And I took this book into the living room with me with just that in mind. It was well written. It was informative. It had provided me with a lot of useful information. It’s always a good idea to revisit all that.
After I’d had the book out for about an hour, I changed my mind. No, I didn’t remember anything discreditable about the book, and I hadn’t gone off the idea of reading about evolution.
What became clearer and clearer to me as I flipped through the thing, though, is that the nature of the evolution wars have changed significantly since 1999.
When Pennock made his case, the great push was to find away around court rulings that banned Creationism in public school classrooms. It was, in fact, a lawyer’s movement. Philip Johnson was one, and the Discovery Institute had them.
One of the things Pennock does very well in his book is to show how Johnson, especially, uses counsel-for-the-defense strategies to try to create “reasonable doubt” in the minds of laypeople, therefore–at least theoretically–making them more amenable to installing Intelligent Design in the curriculum.
The strategy did not work, and the whys and wherefores of why it did not work are interesting in themselves.
But Pennock’s is not a book about that. It is set of arguments meant to be used by supporters of evolution in the particular kind of evolution war occuring at that time.
From what I can tell, that particular kind of evolution war is no longer occuring.
I don’t mean that we’re not fighting about evolution any longer.
Sometimes it feels to me that we’re not only still fighting, but that we’re fighting harder.
It’s just that the nature of the argument has changed.
In 1999, science still had the upper hand. The Intelligent Design people, and even t he Creationist proper people, usually went to great lengths to at least appear scientifically respectable.
These days, it’s as if the Creationist side has stopped caring. More and more school districts with Creationist-friendly school boards seem to be simply installing whatever version of Creationism they want to teach and daring the other side to go to court, or plastering their curricula with anti-evolution messages and letting whoever wants to complain complain.
Fifteen years ago, most people arguing against teaching evolution in the schools were convinced that their fellow citizens had a great respect and admiration for science, even if they didn’t themselves. And they assumed that that respect and admiration had to be placated, if nothing else.
Now it’s almost as if they’re convinced of the exact opposite–that their fellow citizens disdain science just as much as they do, that to designate something as “science” now is to use a pejorative.
And, of course, that their fellow citizens will agree with them.
This would be bad news no matter what the circumstance were that made it show up, but it makes me much more nervous because I’m almost certain that the evolution wars are not about evolution.
Dozens of good and dedicated men and women spend their time these days trying to convince people that evolution is true. They marshal evidence, outline arguments, put up web sites with links to all the data.
And none of it matters.
I have a friend with whom I’ve been arguing about evolution for years. Every time we do, I send her a link to TalkOrigins and their transitional fossils FAQ. It’s all laid out there, transition after transition, transitions within species, between species, in long descent lines from one species to another to a third.
There are nearly 30,0o0 documented cases, all properly footnoted and everything.
Every time we have this argument, I send her there. Then the argument stops, and when it starts up again six or ten months later, it’s as if she’s never heard of TalkOrigins before.
Part of this may be self protection. She adheres to a brand of Protestantism that insists she take Genesis more or less literally, and she doesn’t want to endanger her faith.
But I think the bigger problem is this: she doesn’t bother to look at the evidence, because the truth or falsity of evolution is beside the point.
Evolution isn’t what we’re really talking about.
Every once in a while, I have thi s fantasy that I will one day be able to establish a personal schedule that will never have to change.
Part of that schedule would be what I think of as Sacrosanct Sunday Mornings, a time when I would have to do absolutely nothing but listen to music and read.
In fact, I’d have Sacrosanct Sundays, period, where all I would have to do was listen to music, read, run a DVD or two, and mostly glide into cooking Sunday dinner.
Since I actually enjoy cooking, the Sacrosanctness of the Sunday would not be broken by that last bit. I could just glide right up to it and then pick something really complicated to make to round off the day.
This being the real world, I am nowhere close to my ideal.
At the moment, I’m finishing a book on which I have a deadline. This means the first thing I do when I get up in the morning, before the tea steeps even, is to boot up the computer and try to get into the heads of some very unpleasant people.
This morning, though, I got what I guess was a little lucky. I usually get up around 4. Today, I got up at 2, tried to go back to sleep, found I was wide awake, tried to go back to sleep and then gave up.
Then I came downstairs, booted up the computer, steeped the tea and did the work.
It was then that the sort of good luck happened. Having gotten up that early, I found, when I finished work, that it wasn’t time to Start The Day. It was only about the time I usually got up to work.
I therefore marched back out into the living room, put on Paul O’dette’s Alla Venetiana, and read the first of two essays that m ake up a little book called The Piero della Francesca Trail.
This is not a book that is new to me. I bought it and read it years ago, at which point it disappeared into my office and was never seen again–until a couple of days ago, when I found it while plowing through the place wondering where something else was.
This is also not a book in the way I usually think of books.
What I mean is that it’s not exactly book length.
It consists of two essays, one short and one long. The short one is by Aldous Huxley–yes, the Brave New World Huxley–and is called “The Best Picture.” It’s about the della Francesca Resurrection. The long essay is by John Pope-Hennessy and is called “The Piero della Francesca Trail.” It covers the entire body of della Francesca’s work.
Two essays do not a book make, of course, and the volume is very slim, but it would have been even slimmer if it had not included page after page after page of color plates.
The artwork is well produced and absolutely gorgeous, even though the pages aren’t the slick stuff that sometimes feels like plastic.
Artwork in a book about Piero della Francesca is pretty much essential, since so much of what he did is tucked away in churches and muncipal buildings and museums in and around Urbino. What’s more, a few of those places “around” Urbino are…how shall we put it?–out of the way.
Very out of the way.
The small press that put out the book still has a page up for it, here:
It markets the book as a travel volume, and The Little Bookroom seems to specialize in travel, food and wine and speciality items. I checked their available notecards, but there were none with della Francesca paintings on them.
Granted, he’s not exactly decorative. People might find him a little intense on a notecard.
Or maybe a notecard would just be ironic, considering the message of some of della Francesca’s paintings.
For what it’s worth, I think Huxley is wrong. I think the best picture–in the world, not just in della Francesca’s work; Huxley meant in the world, too–
Anyway, I think the best picture in the world is this one
It’s become customary lately to rename this painting something-or-the-other about St. Jerome, and that’s the title of it Pope-Hennessy uses, but it has been The Flagellation to so many generations that the new name doesn’t quite seem to stick except for professionals.
Under one name or the other, I still think it’s the best painting in the world, ever. And under one name or the other, I think it still has the same underlying message.
If you’re interested in Paul O’dette, there’s some stuff up on YouTube. I don’t suppose it says much to tell you that he’s he go-to guy for Lute, but he is.
Anyway, there is absolutely nothing interesting about any of this to anyone except me. There is no grand societal message–well, della Francesca has one, but I don’t. There’s no speculation on the death of Western civilization or moaning about endemic stupidity or arguing with the wrongheaded.
This is just here because I love it, and it makes me happy.
And I’m going to go spend the day with it, at least until it’s time to do something about the chicken.
I thought about starting this blog post by pointing out that what we usual call a True Believer is much more likely to be a Sadist than a Masochist.
But I think that, right now, I’m going to take that as read, and go back to Socrates, or at least the Socrates of our imagination.
Let’s start here:
My best guess is that, although most people are neither Sadists nor Masochists, almost all people are hardwired to acquire some form of morality.
I think of this as on the same terms as the way we are hardwired for language.
None of us is born with an innate ability to speak French, but we are all born with an innate ability to speak.
If we weren’t we’d never learn to speak anything at all.
I think that in the same way, we are born with an innate ability to form and conform to moral codes–not any one particular code, but SOME code.
We have an innate sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and evil, and we hang the details on the framework.
I’ll leave something else up for grabs, since I’m just speculating here.
Noam Chomsky, back when he was doing actual academic work instead of making a career of foaming at the mouth in a hail of cultural cliches, posited that our hardwiring for language came with something he called “deep grammar.” “Deep grammar” was suppose to be a bare-bones skeleton of linguistic structure that all languages share because they must share it. It’s how our brains understand language and how our brains make it.
I am aware that in the years since, there has been quite a lot of criticism of this idea. It’s an idea that has always appealed to me, though, because it always seemed to me to be logical.
And such a concept for moral behavior and moral ideas would at least explain why every known moral code on the planet shares at least a small set of moral rules. And that’s in spite of the vast variety of other rules, some of them downright perverse.
That being said, I think that if we look around at how people grow and behave, we can see that they learn what is moral and what is not not so much from a set of rules we are given in Sunday School or at the dinner table, than by example.
I don’t mean here that we tend to follow the examples of our neighbors and friends and families, although we do. I think we model our behavior on such people.
But the examples I mean are larger cultural ones. And they’re not specific in the ways you would think.
Every society, every culture, every civilization has a set of heroines and heroes, villains and traitors, whose personal stories provide us with the pictures of what it means to behave well or badly.
But the pictures they provide are deeper than superficial. When we see Socrates dying by drinking hemlock, or Christ dying on the cross, what we get is not necessarily the specific moral codes these two men operated by, but the fact of their martyrdom.
We don’t take away “standing up for your ideas is good” or “promoting peace and brotherhood is good” although we may take away those, too.
What we take away first and foremost is that martyrdom is good.
And, to take that even farther, that victims are good.
Both the highest expressions of human morality this civilization has are images of victims.
That’s interesting in and of itself, because the idea that being a victim made you holy or righteous was not one the Greeks held in any esteem, and the Romans would have found it completely laughable. More than laughable.
It can be a hard idea to take even now. Paul Kurtz, founder of what is now the Centers for Inquiry, once opined that if Jesus had really been God, he wouldn’t have come to earth as a poor carpenter and he wouldn’t have been executed in a shameful way by the forces of Rome.
And, yes, I do realize that Kurtz flamingly missed the point.
Still, it was an idea that the followers and friends of Socrates promoted after his death, for obvious reasons. And it was an idea that was accepted, about Socrates, by many literate people in Greece and Rome.
But the idea only really got going with the rise of Christianity.
The skeletal structure of Christianity presents us with the example of the Victim as Lord, and the Victim as Good–the Victim who is blessed and sanctified by his victimization.
Being a victim makes you good. Being the champion of victims makes you approach the good.
Being not at all a victim makes you–what?
I think the answer is: fair game.
I think that’s what ties those two articles together, the bullying one about Paula Deen and the masochistically self absorbed one about the young woman and her encounter with racism at the bike stand.
Large segments of this society have stripped away all the particulars from Christianity. They don’t believe in the virgin birth or the substitutionary atonement or the resurrection of the dead. They have jettisoned most of the basic moral details of Christian life. They’ve got absolutely no use for chastity and they’re not much interested in living lives of poverty and obedience, except insofar as they can recast their comfortable middle class amenities as “poor” next to the “one percent.”
But one thing they have kept is that image of the Victim as righteous–not because of what he is a victim of, but because he is a victim at all.
A victim is good by definition. His victimhood gives him the only moral authority available to anyone.
And that’s what I meant when I said that it doesn’t really matter what really happened to lead Socrates to execution, or even what really happened to lead Jesus there. More people remember the whys and wherefores of the Jesus story than remember the story about Socrates–but they don’t care, and it doesn’t stick in th eir heads.
What sticks in their heads is that image.
And that is why this civilization is not modern or secular or whatever.
It’s specifically and ineradicably post Christian.
And I feel like I’m blithering.